Studio: Hooked Digital Media
Director: Neal Edelstein
Writer: Andrew Klavan
Producer: Kevin Washington, Neal Edelstein
Stars: Kassia Warshawski, Jenna Berman, Travis Nelson, Tom Carey, Greg Lawson, Rohan Campbell, Lorette Clow, Barb Mitchell, Megan Tracz, Larry Reese, Lisa Moreau, Joe Norman Shaw, Stefanie Bartlett
Melissa Strogue’s unexpected return after a one-month disappearance begins unraveling an otherworldly conspiracy.
Do you like dangling plot threads? Unresolved outcomes? Characters introduced without context? How about watching a three-hour movie in ten-minute drips spread over a two and a half week period? Then “Dark Hearts: The Secret of Haunting Melissa” is just what the doctor ordered to make you run a fingernail over the part in your hair while wondering what the ultimate purpose of the project really is.
Like its predecessor “Haunting Melissa” (review here), the sequel “Dark Hearts” is a feature-length (and then some) horror movie presented in serialized segments as an app for iOS devices. If you’re familiar with “Haunting Melissa,” then you already know the drill.
Part of the presentation for “Dark Hearts” is that its 177-minute runtime is divvied up as 25 separate chapters, with each streaming installment accessible at a random time, usually about a day after the previous chapter is viewed. Viewers receive a push notification on an iPad/iPhone in the form of a chilling voice with something creepy to say each time a new chapter is available. This is one element of the entire package that gets the job done. I confess that my heartbeat skipped a step as I reclined on my couch in the dark, drifting away slowly for a catnap. Unexpectedly, a throaty old woman echoed from the corner where my device was charging, “they’re all hiding a secret!” Okay. That was undeniably freaky. The effect loses its luster well before the 24th occurrence, once the process becomes familiar. But if the app happens to catch you unaware, it will creep you out that first time. I wish I could say the same about the content of the film itself.
It wasn’t until Chapter Four that I started logging when I received messages announcing a new chapter unlock, along with the time period during which I watched the segment. Below is the schedule I ended up with, which is supposedly randomized for every viewer. I believe I began with Chapter One on December 23rd, meaning it took 19 days to make it through the entire film.
Chapter 04 – 12/24 – 06:48pm – 06:48pm-06:50pm
Chapter 05 – 12/25 – 02:58am – 11:30am-11:31am
Chapter 06 – 12/25 – 02:28pm – 02:44pm-02:45pm
Chapter 07 – 12/25 – 03:08pm – 03:08pm-03:11pm
Chapter 08 – 12/26 – 12:13am – 12:20am-12:24am
Chapter 09 – 12/26 – 12:33am – 01:26am-01:44am
Chapter 10 – 12/26 – 07:48pm – 08:46pm-09:00pm
Chapter 11 – 12/27 – 11:18pm – 11:18pm-11:30pm
Chapter 12 – 12/28 – 11:50pm – 12:47am-01:03am
Chapter 13 – 12/29 – 07:19pm – 07:45pm-07:46pm
Chapter 14 – 12/29 – 07:59pm – 08:03pm-08:12pm
Chapter 15 – 12/30 – 01:18pm – 01:19pm-01:28pm
Chapter 16 – 12/31 – 11:48am – 11:51am-12:00pm
Chapter 17 – 01/01 – 11:29am – 12:15pm-12:23pm
Chapter 18 – 01/03 – 03:29am – 10:02am-10:11am
Chapter 19 – 01/04 – 07:18am – 11:53am-12:01pm
Chapter 20 – 01/05 – 07:25am – 04:33pm-04:44pm
Chapter 21 – 01/06 – 04:14pm – 04:17pm-04:24pm
Chapter 22 – 01/07 – 04:29pm – 06:37pm-06:49pm
Chapter 23 – 01/08 – 10:57pm – 10:59pm-11:13pm
Chapter 24 – 01/09 – 06:18pm – 12:36pm-12:40pm on 01/10
Chapter 25 – 01/10 – 02:13pm – 02:38pm-02:43pm
I’m still supremely fuzzy on what it is that Hooked Digital Media means to accomplish with this piecemeal format. As noted in my review of “Haunting Melissa,” the production team’s apparent motivation is to foster anticipation in the viewer and to integrate the experience as part of his/her communication technology usage habits. Except this isn’t what happens.
I want to appreciate that director Neal Edelstein and his cast/crew are trying a creatively different approach, I truly do, though I’m not even sure why. Presenting a horror film through a unique format like a tablet app with push notifications comes with an idea of, “hey that sounds cool.” Yet seeing it in practice brings the realization that it is simply an ineffective and confused storytelling method. It just doesn’t work. Or rather, it doesn’t work for “Dark Hearts” any better than it did for “Haunting Melissa.”
For starters, at least in the schedule I was given, the six segments between chapters five and ten arrived relatively fast and furious with three entries each on two consecutive days. Then 26 hours passed without receiving anything. Chapters eventually settled into a semi-reliable arrival pattern of once per day with the mysterious exception of Chapter Eighteen, which for whatever reason waited an additional day before unlocking. What does sporadic delivery generate for a viewer other than a risk of forgetting about the film entirely during long stretches of nothing? This is a momentum killer, not a momentum builder.
The first eight chapters are free. Although that is almost one-third of the 25 chapters, it is only 1/12th of the content. Just one of those chapters is longer than two and a half minutes and the total of all eight combined equals only 15 minutes of the three-hour runtime. Starting with Chapter Nine, the first chapter requiring payment, installments increase to meatier lengths generally falling between eight and 15 minutes.
Not only are these initial installments frustratingly brief, they serve as little more than random character introductions that in no way entice a newcomer, or even a returning “Haunting Melissa” veteran, to impulse buy a season pass. Chapter One is a two-minute trailer followed by two minutes of Melissa’s father coming home to an empty house. At least three of the characters featured in these segments never show up again until their names appear in the end credits two and a half hours later. “Dark Hearts” follows in the footsteps of “Haunting Melissa” in myriad ways. Too bad one of those ways involves a proclivity for pointless padding.
If “Dark Hearts” started with Chapter Eight, no one would notice anything was missing. However, someone would still notice how needlessly complicated the delivery format is for a story involving multiple characters, timelines, and parallel realities (more on that in a moment). Chapters eight and ten, for example, feature the same character at different points in her life, but the viewer is unlikely to put together that Chapter Eight is a flashback until much later in the film. That probably would not happen if one were watching sequentially in one sitting. Yet when three days separates the mind’s ability to juxtapose those pieces together, memory fades and things like timeline jumps are far less obvious. This has to be the worst possible way to clearly convey a story requiring bounces between multiple threads stretching nonlinearly in various directions.
“Dark Hearts” picks up where “Haunting Melissa” left off with Melissa Strogue’s vanishing. One month has passed since Melissa mysteriously disappeared when she unexpectedly returns home to her father’s farmhouse with barely a hazy recollection of what happened to her in the preceding 30 days. Hardly anything happened to Melissa during the 180 minutes of her first film, so it is unsurprising that no one knows if anything happened to her offscreen afterwards either.
Where “Haunting Melissa” was a mostly grounded haunted house ghost story with a satanic cult twist, “Dark Hearts” takes the fiction into weird world territory involving portal-hopping interspatial travel, pint-sized creatures from another dimension, parallel realities, and a host of other hullaballoo that the screenplay never bothers to tie a ribbon around and explain. It’s like “Dark Hearts” transports Melissa Strogue’s universe to the island from “Lost” circa season three, when the writers began introducing ideas faster than they could come up with reasons for doing so.
Those familiar with “Haunting Melissa” were forced to grow accustomed to an endless carousel spin of unanswered questions fostering mystery without real intrigue behind it. Sad to say, “Dark Hearts” takes that style of narrative heel dragging to new lows with some of the most bizarre character behavior meant to draw out a runtime ever recorded on camera.
Remember that mini-chapter in “Haunting Melissa” where Jack Strogue buried an odd wooden box by the side of the road? Well, Chapter 14 of “Dark Hearts” is all about Melissa’s ex-boyfriend Brandon and his Nancy Drew-esque companion Emma journeying to dig it up. Except once they do, they don’t actually open the box. Chapter 16 begins with Brandon and Emma puzzling over the meaning of the symbol etched into the box’s lid. One of them asks what the other thinks it means. I don’t know. Maybe you could… open the box and find out something?
Despite its prominent appearance in both films, the box is never opened. Neither is the companion box Emma finds in the Strogue farmhouse, which was recovered from Katherine’s bedroom in the first film. Instead, Emma takes a picture of that lid and leaves the box closed, even though returning viewers already know its contents. For an armchair sleuth looking to solve a conspiratorial mystery, Emma sucks something fierce at processing evidence held directly in her hands.
“Dark Hearts” also resumes the tired trick of excessively cryptic dialogue. A dying man in his hospital bed repeatedly warns, “they’re coming!” without ever bothering to specify who “they” are, for instance. Other chapters drag on with meaningless moments like watching a man’s car being repossessed or seeing Melissa’s man make out with yet another character who disappears promptly only to never be seen again.
“Dark Hearts” is drearily dull and lamentably not frightening. The film’s big baddie is a limping old man in a fedora, which is evidently presumed to be scary simply because he is showcased in silhouette with ominous music accompanying his presence. He is gaunt and partially crippled. His visage isn’t imposing the way say Darth Vader, Leatherface, or Pinhead is by appearance alone. For most of the movie, the old man merely skulks in shadows occasionally whispering words. There’s no context given as to whether he is good or bad, a portent of evil, or what is supposed to be so sinister about him. Each time he shambled onscreen I could only wonder, what is it I should fear about this figure? How can I have an emotional response when there is no understanding of how he, or anything else for that matter, relates to whatever may be happening in the movie?
“Dark Hearts” earns a slightly higher score than “Haunting Melissa” because its visual look is more polished with a bigger bump in production value. There are a few first-person segments, but “Dark Hearts” is otherwise not presented as “found footage” this time around. That gives the film freedom to swim in steadicam setups, crane shots, and at least one helicopter ride for the camera crew (or a drone) to open up the production with more locations than just an empty field and a farmhouse. Unfortunately, the film remains ball-and-chained to a delivery format that hamstrings the rhythm and to fiction impenetrable for anyone who hasn’t already invested three hours into “Haunting Melissa” (and barely penetrable for those who have).
If you’re looking to jump on the “Haunting Melissa” train mid-journey, this is not the place to board. And if the first app/movie left you underwhelmed and/or unimpressed, “Dark Hearts” won’t win back your interest. However, if you enjoyed the breadcrumb trail to nowhere that “Haunting Melissa” casually laid down with a yawn, then “Dark Hearts” additionally offers a welcoming haven of message boards dedicated to each chapter where like-minded conspiracy theorists are invited to mistake continuity errors for hidden clues hinting at the movie’s directionless mystery. Before getting too wound up in misperceived nuance, just remember that this is the same project that didn’t spell its title character’s last name consistently the first time around. If you think the creators have savvy for subtlety when it comes to small details, you might be fabricating more meaning into the story than the screenplay actually does.
Review Score: 50